Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Cloud for Collaboration

One of the most relevant tools for increasing engagement in online courses has been proved to be the interpersonal connection, which is strongly supported with the use of collaboration as format for formative assessments and practices.
Based on the feedback I have received from my online students over the years, they always loved the opportunity to feel being part of a class and sharing ideas and experiences with their peers.
Usually LMSs offer opportunity for fostering collaboration among students. For Moodle users some build-in tools for collaborations are the forums, great for class discussions, the glossaries, good tools Poodles offer the opportunity for collaboration using voice or video recordings - however, based on my experience, they can be giving some technical challenges sometimes.
for collaborative activities on specific topics;
With Canvas the build-in collaborative tool is the discussion. A very nice feature of this tool is the option of assigning peers review of the post either manually or randomly, which means that each student is given the name(s) of the person(s) they need to interact with. This helps in pushing students toward reading and commenting on posts of people they do not know and that they might not have chosen on their own.

My favorite collaborative tool that I have been using for several years is VoiceThread. The best way  I can explain what this tool does, is defining it as PowerPoint on steroids! You can use still images or videos individually or in a slide show, and students can comment on each frame typing or recording their voice or video. Everyone can listen to other people's posts and they can build in or comment. I have used this tool in various ways: mostly I used for recreating the classroom interaction with my students in the target language. What I like so much about this tool is that is so versatile and I can use it for my interactions with students as class while each of them can listen to what other students are saying. For foreign languages online courses this is a great asset!

Other tools that I have been using include Google Doc/Google Drive for , Blackboard Collaborate, and Microsoft Lync.

Researching on the Internet for resources I have found several websites providing a lot of good resources. Those that I would like to recommend are Kathy Schrocks - Guide to Everything
and EmergingTechEd. These sites present a very good variety of tools for promoting collaboration.
One tool that I have found on these sites that I have not yet yet but that I find intriguing to try is

I am not quite sure how to implement this tool to my courses, but I think that it would be a good tool for reviewing language structures in peer groups. I will play with it and I will add more ideas for using in another post.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Essentials For Engagement

I just got back from a week of super-intersting-exciting-total-immersion in the iNACOL symposium. This was my very first time at this conference and I am completely blown away by this experience. The Keynote Speakers were all remarkable and the educators presents were powerful. For the first time EVER I was able to find 3 other "white flies" like myself teaching foreign languages online in an asynch environment... one is from Oregon, one is from Wisconsin, and the last one is from Minnesota. We bonded right away and collaboration flew right on... but this is the topic for another
post! :)
Let's get back to iNACOL.... "Competency-based Education" was the buzz word this year, and a good number of sessions focused on strategies for switching to this type of education where students are not seeking a grade but learning!.. what an odd concept, isn't it? - chuckle -  I deeply agree with these principles and this is what I envision for my ideal online courses. This is my most ambitious goal and I am not sure how long it will take to achieve it, but I strongly believe that this is the greatest investment I can do for my students.

When I look at my courses critically, I have to admit that students are working for the grade, which somehow I find sad, however I can identify myself in this kind of rat-race for the A whenever I am enrolled in a college class. Unfortunately our educational system is focused on grades and GPA is an extremely important element of every students' life from high school level on. Grades define who you are, how good you are, which prizes or scholarships you might earn,  which college might accept you, and so forth. But what about what students really KNOW and MASTER?
In my opinion the overall "design" of education should reflect encourage and promote mastery and competency and be the framework upon which creating individual pieces of education, such as our courses.

Why am I going off on Competency-Based Education when I am trying to talk about students' engagement in online courses? Well, in my opinion the actual educational framework of a course creates the premises for the effectiveness of all the bells and whistles needed for promoting and supporting students engagement.

I have been reading several articles about students' engagement in online courses - I found a great collection of resources on Edutopia  and there is a lot of scholar articles on this topic as well - and I see that all strategies have in common one aspect: the importance of the human connection!
In spite of the technology in which online students and teachers are plunged in, the element that really connects educators and students and hooks students is the human connection established with the instructor and among peers.

John McCarthy, author of "Igniting Student Engagement: A Roadmap for Learning"  places "being real" as first practice. He meant to focus on the the authenticity of the learning process, however this step requires the knowledge of students for being able to create a connection between the authentic component and their personal lives and interests.
Ali Briggs in "Ten Ways to Overcome Barriers to Student Engagement Online"provides a very nice outline of steps to follow for establishing a positive environment that would support and promote student' engagement in online courses.
I went through the checklist and I did a self reflection... I did not need to go too far for finding my "guilty" spots. It is so hard sometimes to organize your days for fitting everything, but I like having this checklist now as reference for what I need to prioritize, considering that the consequences could be failing my students and loosing the priceless connection with them.

Going back to the connection between competency-based learning and engagement, I think that it is pretty straight forward recognizing how a student would feel more connected with the content studied in a course when he/she has the feel for it and can see and measure her/his own progress in a realistic manner, not framed by grades. 

I am going to make a checklist sheet with these important steps and I will post it here in the blog for whoever wants to use it.

Work in Progress

Now that we are into the second half of the first semester of this school year, I am in the process of reviewing my e-courses on Canvas and evaluating those sections that had a rough initial start of of some elements of this new (to me) LMS.

There are 3 goals for major change of my courses I want tackle before the beginning of the Spring
  1.  First contact email sent to students at the time of their enrollment with the first directions for the access to the course and link to the introduction of the course video. Although it is not  specific component of the course, this email is very critical since I can send it to students and their parents/guardians, allowing all of them to have a first taste and feel for the course. Parents/guardians are not yet able to access to my Canvas courses with an observer account - this might change next year - so this first video will allow parents/guardians to have an understanding of what the course is about right away.
    I think that this piece of information will allow parents more understanding of the learning environment of their kids and will empower them in asking the right question to the students whenever they want to know more about their progress.
    I am also considering the option of creating a video specific for parents/guardian for guiding them through the course and show them how and where they can monitor the progress, activity and score of their kids in the course, as well as seeing my feedback to their work. This idea is becoming more relevant due to a feature present in Canvas: the "what if..." option in the grade book. Students indeed can use this feature for changing their grades (not on the actual grade-book) and see what they would need to score in a particular assignment for changing their final grade. Great feature, right? Well, recently I was told of a parent who was completely blown way when she realized that he son was lying to her and showing her the "what if" grades instead of the actual scores of his work. The discrepancy between the reports shown by he student and the concerned emails from a teacher moved the parent to call our office for figuring out what was going on. It was just then, when the parent was able to access to the course and go to the grade-book that realized that something was very wrong and that what she was seeing at that moment was far different from what she was shown regularly by her child.
    Now, this episode is pretty iconic of how great tools can be used in the wrong way and you never know what to expect!
  2. Redesign the first section of the course for being more user friendly and making sure that all the important information are provided to students. This process will include the remake of the navigation video and the use of Google Docs as repository of content shared by multiple courses, such as the students tools.
    This goal is very important to me especially considering the major failure to launch I had with the Fall semester. I have made a list of all the possible things that could go wrong - not that I can be 100% positive that nothing else will pop-up, but at least I can beat the odds! I have been researching various Canvas sites for gaining more ideas of functional and well designed courses to use as models.
    Something that I would like to keep on target is the accessibility of the site especially to hearing and vision impaired students. This is certainly a great challenge because often it conflict with my creativity drive. Finding the right balance between functionality, accessibility, and aesthetic is definitely challenging, but it is something I want and need to address since I would like to have my courses being accessible to all our students. Last year for the first time I have seen the tool used by a blind student for navigating the Internet, and that experience was a wake-up call for the code barriers we create in our e-courses when we start paying with fonts, colors, and all the very cool visual effects.
    I am planning to have one of our district vision specialist to test my courses for accessibility, and I would like to have a few students testing my spring courses for user-friendliness during the Christmas break.
  3. Review my assessment program. This will benefit my students and also myself in the way that at this time I have a graded task with need or re-grading almost every day, which times 120 students makes my life a nightmare! I am sure that there must be a better way to assess my students. I really want to look into how to streamline my assessment program for making it more relevant to students and less grading-intensive.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Networking and Self Care

We are in the full swing of this school year, the first quarter has already closed and now we are getting closer to the holidays seasons which is going to bring the closing of the first semester before we can even realize it. The healthy glow we had on our first day of school is long forgotten and out faces start showing the signs of little sleep and lot of work... welcome to the life of a teacher! ...Well, this is something that I have to remind myself all the time: "Take care of yourself!" My mom has a beautiful Italian saying "an empty bag can't stand up!" Let's try to make sure we are not emptying ourselves so much that we cannot be there anymore for our students as we would like to be.


There are various way you can take care of yourself, sleep more, reduce stress, pamper yourself, but also there is a great prevention you could do which goes beside yourself... start reaching out to the amazing community of educators we have in our state and beyond! As educators too often we get somehow sucked into our daily school life of our classroom, either traditional or virtual, and we forget that other people out there, sometimes even close-by are going though similar situation, or have been already similar situation, and they could share their expertise and help us. The common saying of "why reinventing the wheel" is something we should always keep in mind, long before we burn-up ourselves too much.

Every year at ASTE I hear so many people, including myself celebrating the amazing experience of being able to connect with educators from around the state and being able to share experiences and tools. Every year we promise ourselves that we will keep in touch with these people, and then when we go back to our districts, we go back to our routines, and we do not think much about the people we connected with until the following ASTE conference.

Why waiting for so long? Remember all these amazing people are out there, and while they all have a lot to offer, they might also need something that we can offer them. Some districts more than others are celebrating collaboration beyond the boundaries of their own district staff, and are supporting and promoting this very positive networking. I would like to recognize the amazing contribution Kodiak Island School District has been doing this year sponsoring several PD events for educators from all over the state.

ASTE has created a couple of years ago the SIG Networks for helping supporting the connection among its members and other educators during the 360 days of the year in between conferences. These Networks are all gathered into a Google+ community ASTE Networks, and it is a great place to go to for keep the connection with the people you have met or heard of during the yearly conference. There are also some other great communities on Google+ worth of mention: AKTeach Webinars and PD, Alaska Online Teachers, Alaska Teacher Talk.
Twitter is also a great tool for keeping connection and for connecting with new shakers and movers who could have some precious tidbits.

The bottom line is, you are not alone out there, but you are part of an incredible and very talented community. Keep that in mind and remember that this is a great way to take care of yourself and others at the same time.

Images retrieved from, on 11/07/2015